Surviving the unthinkable: Utah lineman who lost brothers, friend in car accident found solace, healing with football family

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 10:00 p.m. MDT

Redshirt freshman Salesi Uhatafe takes part in a football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the plane prepared to land, the cabin bustled to life, waking Salesi "Leka" Uhatafe.

His father still slept a seat away, next to the aisle, so the 19-year-old slid the window shade up and stared outside. There wasn't much to see until the jet slowly turned toward the aiport hangar. That's when he saw them — familiar faces lining the path that the plane’s passengers would walk to access the gate.

“I saw all of my family and friends, lined up across the (tarmac) wearing yellow coats,” he said last Thursday after one of Utah’s spring practices. “I told my dad to look, he was still half-asleep. But he looked, and then he told me to close it and started crying.”

The tears Salesi Uhatafe Sr. shed were an agonizing mix of gratitude and grief. He and his son, Leka, who is a freshman offensive lineman at the University of Utah, were the only survivors in a devastating car accident last July.

Navigating the unfathomable loss became bearable, in large part, because of the overwhelming outpouring of love and support the Uhatafes received both in their home state of Texas as well as in Utah.

“It was crazy,” said the soft-spoken but quick-witted lineman. He said the support was both a comfort and a raw reminder of what he and his family lost in the early-morning hours of Tuesday, July 30, 2013.

The crash, which happened on a lonely stretch of New Mexico highway during a one-week break Utah football players had before fall camp began, claimed the lives of both of Leka’s brothers and one of his best friends: Polo Manukainiu, Leka’s 19-year-old step-brother who was a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M; his 13-year-old brother, Andrew “Lolo” Uhatafe; and close friend and Trinity High teammate Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku, who was an incoming freshman defensive lineman for the U.

Leka Uhatafe was behind the wheel and was the only one wearing a seat belt when the crash occurred. The men were taking turns driving as they tried to travel the 1,200 miles from Salt Lake to their hometown of Euless, Texas, as quickly as possible. Police believe Uhatafe fell asleep, possibly waking and overcorrecting, causing the SUV to roll.

The agony of what the family lost in the wake of the accident was so severe, Leka Uhatafe said he considered going back to Utah and returning just for the burial of his brothers and friend.

“Polynesian funerals, they go on for like a week,” Leka said, adding the family was involved in fundraisers and tributes at both the local junior high, high school and the LDS community to which his parents belong. “It was kind of hard, but at the same time, it was better for me to stay there and mourn.”

When he returned to Salt Lake City, the day after his brothers were buried, he said he knew immediately he would have both the space and support he needed to heal.

“It was good just to keep my mind off of things, to focus on something else,” said Uhatafe, who used his redshirt season after the accident. “That really helped me through the process. They were just welcoming with open arms, joking and, you know, I didn’t want to be treated differently. I’m not here to get special treatment.”

Pity was too painful, so it was a relief to him that when his football brothers welcomed him, they did so with humor. He said it is difficult for those who’ve never played the sport to understand the kind of bond that is created among teammates.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be able to come back if it wasn’t for this program,” he said. “And that’s one thing I’m really grateful for, the Utah program, (coach Kyle Whittingham) and how family-oriented they all are.”

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